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Fire Blackens 80 Acres Near Ojai


OJAI — A slow-moving brush fire scorched 80 acres south of Ojai on Wednesday, burning within 50 feet of homes near the Camp Comfort area of Creek Road.

More than 200 firefighters battled flames of up to 50 feet, eyewitnesses said.

The blaze was contained before it destroyed any homes, but fire officials said it could be a grim harbinger for the future, as rainfall is below average and the driest months lie ahead.

More than 80 students at nearby Villanova Preparatory School spent their first day of the school year in the dorms, in case of an evacuation.

By 6:30 p.m., ground crews and two air tankers had the fire 75% contained, said Fred Ponce, spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department. It is expected to be extinguished by this morning, he said.

The fire started when a tractor pulling a rotary mower hit a rock and the sparks ignited brush, Ponce said. It spread north along a slope behind the Creek Road homes, charring oaks and chaparral in its path. Two firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion, officials said.

As a precaution, Creek Road homeowner Cary Jones hosed down a clearing behind his house until firefighters took over, then watered his roof.

"I wasn't really concerned," Jones, 43, said. "I've seen those guys work before."

Calm winds of 7 to 13 mph, coupled with homeowners' compliance with 100-foot brush clearance laws, kept the fire from becoming a disaster, officials said. But county rainfall averages are at least 3 inches below normal going into the two driest months of the year.

Ojai's rainfall is about 13 inches below normal for the year, according to the National Weather Service.

Joe Luna, spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department, said the fire season looks ominous, particularly since other parts of California and the nation have seen major fires.

Wednesday's fire was small compared to others so far this season, which started May 16 and will run through at least mid-November, Luna said. In June, two fires charred 800 acres near Calabasas on the county line and 400 acres near Piru.

Moisture levels in vegetation are hovering above the critical 60% point, which means grass areas are "prime for ignition," Luna said.

Because of the dry conditions, fire crews are using more resources even for the smallest fires, Luna said. Calls that in wetter months would require one engine will get five engines, a hand crew of 15 to 20 firefighters, a helicopter and a bulldozer.

Luna cautioned that even a spark from a barbecue or a cigarette can ignite brush and spread quickly, and that residents should always be on guard.

"Just watch the weather," he said. "If it seems hot and dry, just be careful with all outdoor activities."

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